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Author Ken Follett Takes On The 20th Century

The author who has dominated epic storytelling for three decades is back with another ambitious saga. Ken Follett's new novel is called Fall of Giants, and as the 985-page first installment of a trilogy covering the 20th century, it certainly qualifies as epic.

So does Follett's career. He made his name writing spy novels like Eye of the Needle and turned to historical fiction with works like Pillars of the Earth. His sales have topped the 100-million-copy mark.

Follett tells NPR's Guy Raz that this time, he "wanted to say to the reader right away, 'OK, this isn’t going to be a story all about kings and queens and prime ministers and presidents. It’s also going to be a story about ordinary people struggling to lead their lives.' "

Fall of Giants, Follett's 20th novel, spotlights five families from Wales, the United States, Russia and Germany as their countries hurtle toward World War I. Its subjects range from class warfare between labor and aristocrats, to the suffrage movement, to the horrific ways in which WWI was fought.

Developing Characters

"I start with the history, and I ask myself, 'What are the great turning points? What are the big dramatic scenes that are essential to telling the story? " Follett says. "Then I thought of characters who would participate in some passionate way in those great events."

Creating those characters and the way they serve the story, he says, is like painting: "You would be sketching out an outline of a person and saying that person has to be top left. There are no eyes, no nose, no mouth, but you get the position and you’ve got the rough shape."

And that's when the writing gets really enjoyable. "You can start saying, ‘I wonder what they would’ve been like.’ That’s the fun part: inventing those characters and their pasts."

Writing Historical Fiction

"There's a lot of research, and I enjoy the research. I like reading history, and actually most authors enjoy the research part because it is, after all, easier than writing," Follett says when asked how he managed to capture with such vivid detail settings like a Russian factory or a Welsh coal mine.

In his research for the trilogy, Follett turned to historian Eric Hobsbawm's book The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 because, he says, "then I could see the shape of my trilogy. Hobsbawm gave me the notion that that is actually the period with a beginning and an end, which is what we as storytellers are always looking for."

Prime Minister David Lloyd George

"[Lloyd George] did something that's still remembered in folk songs in Great Britain. He introduced old-age pensions," Follett said when asked about the sense of betrayal of the working class by Lloyd George in the novel.

Follett, in offering up his assessment of the man in the middle of it all, says, "There are stories which are still told about old men who had been coal miners, steel workers, weeping as they came out of the post office with the first installment of their old-age pension, because they knew they would now never be destitute. That's really an emotional moment in British history."

And yet his time in office saw the rise of the Labour Party because of this sense of betrayal. "First of all, he did not end the first World War when he could have. Secondly, at the end of the war, he continued in coalition with the Conservatives," Follett said.


Follett is married to a former member of Parliament, Barbara Follett. Explaining his ability to write about high-level politics, he says: "For the last 13 years, Britain has been run by my friends ... Most of our friends -- the people we have dinner with, the people we go to the theater with, the people we go on holiday with -- have been ministers in the British government."

In a glimpse into his life as the husband of a former MP, Follett recounts a dinner conversation where his wife says, "You know, today I signed off 73 billion pounds." For Follett, "all that, and just talking to all these people about the daily responsibility of making decisions and working with civil servants and so on has been, frankly, a terrific help to me in writing."

And so, Follett, who finished Fall of Giants six months ago, says, "I've written the outline for the second book and just started writing it. I've got about a hundred pages." With Giants hitting bookstores Tuesday, it looks like the planned sequel about WWII won't be far behind.

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